Between expectations and reality—challenge and progress and discouragement and frustration

Plus - 12 best books I read last year – book 6 of 12

For years, I had unrealistic expectations regarding a close friend. I was continually frustrated and he was constantly discouraged because of the unrealistic gap between expectations and reality. It was my faulty judgment that was causing the strain and friction in our relationship. When, in my mind, I “lowered the bar” closer to reality, my frustration subsided and the relationship improved.

I have another close relationship in which I have erred in the opposite way: my expectations have been too low and the person has stalled in her growth and development. I need to raise the bar and encourage her to start climbing.

This is a complex topic. Psychologists, leaders, parents, and others have wrestled with this issue and the questions it begets, such as:

  1. What are the advantages and disadvantages of having high expectations of people?
  2. What are the advantages and disadvantages of having low expectations of people?
  3. How can expectations be set such that the disadvantages are minimized and the advantages maximized?
  4. When is it acceptable to have expectations of people and when is it none of my business?
  5. How does this expectations/reality syndrome apply to the organizations and businesses I relate to? (Are my expectations of my cell phone provider too high or too low? How about local restaurants? The schools my children attend?)

Think of a current relationship in which you are continually frustrated. Do you need to recalibrate your expectations? Identify one of your relationships in which increased expectations would be beneficial. What would be a good, first step?

Leaders, here are some additional thoughts about setting expectations in your organization.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

12 best books I read last year – book 6 of 12

Talent Is Overrated – What Really Separates World-class Performers from Everybody Else – Geoff Colvin, 2008. You’ll be surprised to learn how people like Mozart, Tiger Woods and Warren Buffet became exemplary, and how we “normal” people can also excel. Click here for more information from Amazon.

Sometimes, think like an anthropologist

Observe and study experiences as an anthropologist would observe and study a ritualistic dance of a tribe in the Amazon.

Anthropologists have an insatiable curiosity about life and possess the requisite skills to study and understand their subjects. They are non-judgmental and they don’t interfere with, or try to change, the subject they are studying. Their sole intent is to observe and learn.

For instance, Margaret Mead (one of America’s first and best anthropologist) is known for her studies of the non-literate peoples of Oceania, especially with regard to various aspects of psychology and culture—the cultural conditioning of sexual behavior, natural character, and culture change. She spent 30 years observing and studying young adolescent girls on the island of Samoa. She was not there to judge, interfere, or change.

Sometimes, it’s beneficial to think like an anthropologist.

For instance, I recently attended the annual Airports Going Green Conference. For three days environmentalists from around the world met to discuss environmental issues and opportunities that airports deal with. I had no responsibilities at the conference and the topic was far outside my bailiwick so I donned my anthropologist persona and for three days simply studied the people who attended and the issues that brought them together.

Thinking like an anthropologist affected my approach; I was a silent, detached observer. This perspective made me more aware of motivations, historical perspectives, roles people played, and possible future outcomes.

Adopting the mindset of an anthropologist heightens our desire to listen and to understand; it lessens our tendency to voice our opinion and perspective. It minimizes our proneness to criticize and reduces our penchant to try to change things. It may even make us more agreeable and easier to get along with, but that’s another topic for another post.

I titled this post “Sometimes, think like an anthropologist” because we needn’t think like one all the time. Most of the time we need to think critically and aggressively address issues.

But occasionally it is beneficial to change persona, take out your notebook and magnifying glass, and simply observe.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

“Yes, but on the other hand…” (the value of dialectic thinking)

Plus - 12 best books I read last year – book 5 of 12

In my high school debate class we were taught to develop a sound argument for and against each proposition. Prior to a debate we didn’t know which side of the proposition we would be asked to defend so we had to be prepared to support either side. It taught us good debating technique and a good life skill.

There are always two sides (or three, or four…) to every situation. We are usually predisposed to one particular view so it takes concerted effort to think of other perspectives. We usually don’t make that effort; it’s easier to embrace our default position and avoid the intellectual rigor that dialectic thinking requires.

A friend of mine whom I’ll call Chris (because that’s his name) told me that his favorite teacher in high school had a wonderful technique for developing dialectic thinking in his students. If a student made a declaratory statement the teacher would respond with the phrase, “Yes, but on the other hand…” But—here’s the nice twist—the teacher wouldn’t fill in the blank, he required the student to do so.

So, a discussion might sound like this:
Student: “I think it’s wrong for governments to control whether or not chlorine is added to our drinking water.”
Teacher: “Yes, but on the other hand, tell me why it’s a good idea for governments to control that issue.”

One of the keys to thinking well is not so much what you think but how you think, and an important aspect of how you think is to discipline yourself to pursue the multiple perspectives that surround all issues.

At a recent weekly family dinner (my favorite, reoccurring experience) we explored dialectic thinking by staging a debate. I proposed this proposition: We should only bathe once a week. [I had recently read a report in which a group of dermatologist recommended this practice.] Lauren and Jonathan were teamed together against Mary and me. We randomly assigned which team was for the proposition and which team was against it. Then the debate began. It produced a fun and intellectually stimulating exercise that also forced us to consider the issue from multiple perspectives.

I didn’t bathe for three days.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

12 best books I read last year – book 5 of 12

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die – Heath and Heath, 2007. Lean six traits that make ideas durable. A must read for those to want to communicate, well. Click here for more information from Amazon.

Leaders: if you plan well, major projects can be accomplished quickly

I recently sailed across the Atlantic from Southampton, England to New York City on the Queen Mary 2. It is the largest and finest ocean liner in the world. The ship is the length of four football fields, and it holds 3,064 passengers and 1,253 crew.

Her maiden voyage was January 12, 2004. Twelve years later, in 2016, she had sailed 1,791,058 nautical miles, the equivalent of the distance to the moon and back more than four times.

After all that travel, she needed to be remastered and totally refurbished. She was dry docked and the work commenced.

The remastering cost $132 million and included:

  • exhaust gas cleaning systems installed on all four diesel engines
  • four upgraded propulsion motors
  • a new ballast water treatment system
  • a new reverse osmosis water production plant
  • the entire ship repainted
  • all staterooms and public areas were remodeled (including adding 50 new staterooms)

Five thousand workers and contractors worked three shifts a day, 24/7.

Here’s the amazing fact: the entire project was completed in 25 days.

How was that possible? 25 days. Remodeling my master bathroom took longer than that.

Here’s the key: if you plan well, major projects can be accomplished quickly.

It took two years to plan the Queen Mary 2 refit. Architectural plans were drawn, parts and supplies ordered, workers hired, schedules written—then she was dry docked and the work commenced. Because of good planning, everyone knew exactly what to do and had the tools and supplies to get it done.

Leaders, I challenge you to duplicate this scenario in your organization. Visualize an important project, plan well, and then make it happen quickly.

At Stonebriar Community Church, we have an incredible children’s and youth choir program. Their recent Christmas program involved 450 children and students performing an intricate, well-choreographed 80-minute concert. All the various parts came together at one Saturday morning rehearsal; the concert was the following day.

Though on a smaller scale, the good planning and execution that went into this concert reminded me of the remastering of the QM2. Well done, Sandi and Misty.

To accomplish a large task quickly: visualize every detail, plan meticulously, and execute well.

You can do this.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Three techniques for better conversations: “ding, dong, later”

Here are three “rules of engagement” that will enhance your conversations. Talk about them with those whom you frequently converse with and incorporate them in your dialogues. They can become “verbal shorthand” to improve communication.


Sometimes a conversation grows stale because we’ve talked too long about one topic.There’s a limit to how long we need to talk about yesterday’s ballgame or the bill the Senate is voting on next week. A conversation often begins to stall but no one takes the initiative to change topics and there’s no mechanism to subtly do so.

Here’s a solution: In our conversations, let’s adopt the term “ding” to indicate a change of topic. It’s reminiscent of clinking the side of a water glass with a spoon; just say, “ding” to let people know you intend to introduce a new topic. If the current conversation is not finished, someone can simply say, “Before we ‘ding’ let me say one more thing…”


Sometimes, in a conversation, I may sense that someone is sharing a strong, heartfelt opinion or thought—there’s a strong emotional element to what he is expressing.

If I immediately counter his thoughts or start to share my perspective, he may feel that I’m not listening and that I’m dismissing his thoughts. So the proper response is for me to be quiet and simply listen.

But if the conversation ends and I’ve not had the opportunity to share my thoughts, he may think I agree with his position and conclusions. (I can imagine him saying at a later time, “You didn’t say anything so I just assumed you agreed with what I said.”)

So, let’s use the term “dong” when we’re having a conversation in which one person is sharing strong convictions and the other person will be passive and not say much. But that doesn’t mean the quiet one agrees with what is being said.

Either person can “dong” the conversation. At the beginning of the conversation, the person who has something strong to express may say “dong” as if to say, “I need to express my thoughts; please hear me out; if you don’t voice your thoughts about the issue I won’t assume you agree with me.”

Or the person who is listening may plead the “dong-rule” during or at the end of the conversation as if to say, “I want to (or did) listen carefully to what you’re saying; I’m not going to share my thoughts about this topic at this time, but don’t assume my silence indicates my agreement.”


Use this cue to suggest that the topic of conversation be postponed to a later time. The topic does need to be discussed but not here and now.

When the “later” gesture is used, it might be helpful to immediately agree on when the delayed conversation will take place. This is particularly helpful if one person repeatedly defers conversations.

In my family we consider these three expressions to be “terms of engagement”; they are useful conversational tools.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Consider: you may be wrong

Only four spots left for the October trip to Europe - see details below

In Leo Tolstoy’s novel The Death of Ivan Ilych, the protagonist, Ivan Ilych, is a smart, competent attorney dying from an unknown cause. Tolstoy describes a scene in which Ivan has a sobering realization while gazing at his sleeping daughter, Gerasim.

“Ivan Ilych’s physical sufferings were terrible, but worse than the physical sufferings were his mental sufferings which were his chief torture.

His mental sufferings were due to the fact that at night, as he looked at Gerasim’s sleepy, good-natured face with its prominent cheek-bones, the question suddenly occurred to him: ‘What if my whole life has been wrong?’

It occurred to him that what had appeared perfectly impossible before, namely that he had not spent his life as he should have done, might after all be true.”

What a solemn question. 

I doubt if many of us will get to the end of our lives and wonder, “What if my whole life has been wrong?” But all of us should embrace the fact that there are specific areas of our lives that are probably wrong and need to change.

  • What if you have lived a self-centered life?
  • What if you have neglected your family?
  • What if you have not lived authentically?
  • What if you have pursued the wrong career?

Know this: there are areas of your life in which you are wrong. If you think you’re an exception to this statement, your pushback betrays your naiveté, lack of self-awareness, and error.

The good news is you can change. Thoreau said, “I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life through conscious endeavor.”

Conscious endeavor can include turning wrong into right.

Take an audit of your life, particularly in the areas in which you have a closed mind – areas that have been unassailable and beyond reproach. Also investigate areas that are part of your cultural heritage – ideologies that you inherited from your family and culture. Consider your blind spot; everyone has one. (You’ll need someone else to help you on this issue, because your are…blinded…to your your blind spot.)

If taken seriously, this exploration could be one of the most significant events of your life.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

In October 2018 I’m hosting a trip to the three great cities of the western world: London, Paris, Rome. (We’ll also visit Lisbon, Barcelona, and Florence.) The trip is limited to 44 guests. Only four slots remain. Click here for more information.


Don’s “Best of 2017” – books, meal, wine, new friend, concert, fun experience, travel moment, new project, self-insight

I am so grateful to God for my life, family, and friends. Looking back on the past 12 months several “best of…” come to mind. Here are a few.

Best novel and non-fiction books read
The Last Days of Night – Graham Moore
The Power of Moments – Chip and Dan Heath

I read a lot; my goal is to read one book a week. Two weeks ago I posted a list of all the books I read in 2017. These were my two favorites.

The Last Days of Night – Historical fiction, it tells the story of Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse’s epic battle regarding who invented the light bulb, and also includes the colorful Serbian emigrant, Nicola Tesla.

The Power of Moments – I like everything the Heath brothers write. They combine good research with accessible writing. This book unpacks the importance of pivotal moments and how to make them happen.

Best meal
Pot roast with family

When I was a child we had pot roast every Sunday for lunch. Mom put it in the oven before we left for church and it was ready when we returned. So I have a strong emotional/sentimental connection to the dish. Several years ago I experimented with more than 12 different ways to season and cook a chuck roast and I have perfected the genre. So my favorite meal is to sponsor a carnivore night with family; we often stretch the event to two+ hours. Solomon was right when he said the best thing in life is to eat, drink, and spend time with those you love.


Best bottle of wine
2012 Hentley Farm, The Beast, Shiraz

In August I attended the grand tasting at TexSom—a premier conference for sommeliers. Penfold’s (a famous winery in Australia) was pouring samples of their best wine – Grange ($700 per bottle). Then I tasted The Beast from Hentley Farm (a relatively unknown winery from Australia) and liked it better than the Penfold’s. I ordered two bottles from a wine shop in upper state New York. Mary and I shared one bottle with our tablemates on the Queen Mary 2 and we’re saving the other bottle to celebrate a special event.

Best new friend

A couple in my church is training a therapy dog which they bring to worship services. It is a beautiful blonde Golden Retriever. One Sunday I asked where they got their dog and they gave me the name of a local breeder. I called; a new litter had just been born. In October I got a wonderful puppy and named him Buddy. He’s my therapy dog: he’s always happy to see me when I get home; he listens to me intently and doesn’t interrupt; he prefers hamburger over lobster. He gives me joy.


Best musical concert
University of North Texas A Cappella Choir

My church, Stonebriar Community Church, sponsors Center Stage Concerts in which a limited audience (250 people) sit in close proximity to the musicians. In October we hosted the UNT choir, directed by Professor Allen Hightower. It was splendid. Many people have never heard the sounds we were fortunate to hear. Choral singing at its best.

Best fun experience
Chuck Swindoll directing an orchestra

Chuck Swindoll is the senior pastor at Stonebriar Community Church. I refer to him as the Pope of the evangelical world. He’s the greatest person I have ever known. At our Christmas Eve service our orchestra director surprised Chuck by handing him the baton to direct the 63 instrumentalists in Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride. It brought the house down—unmitigated joy and happiness.

Best travel moment
Transatlantic crossing on the Queen Mary 2

This is our third connective year to sail on this mid-December transatlantic cruise from London to New York City. I want to do this trip every year until I die. It is seven days at sea so there’s nothing to do but read, write, think, and attend lectures—but those are my favorite things to do so I’m in nirvana.

Best new project

I’ve always wanted to have my own vineyard. The challenge has been where to plant it. This year my daughter and son-in-law bought a large lot on Cedar Creek Lake and started building a lake house. They have graciously allocated a 50×60 plot for a vineyard. We’ll grow Blanc du Bois, Black Spanish, and Tempranillo.

Best self-insight
For better and for worse—I’m frugal.

Even at 65 I’m still learning more about who I am and how nature and nurture nuanced me. This year I’ve discovered more about my frugality and how it has been a friend and a nuisance.

I grew up poor. Food was rationed, I wore hand-me-down clothes. So I was imprinted with the gift of frugality. Through the years it has prompted me to be careful with money, bargain hard, and save. That’s the good side. The downside is that I often do things to save money that I should pay to have done. I spent four hours changing out my car battery to save $50. My time is more valuable than that.

I hope 2018 will be a good year for all of us.

Question: Please share with your fellow readers, and me, some of your “Best of 2017” experiences. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

The power of forgiveness

To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you. —Lewis Smedes

In her book The Liar’s Club, Mary Kerr tells the true story of a married couple who had a major argument over how much the wife had spent on sugar. Instead of resolving the simple dispute, both husband and wife held on to their grudge and refused to speak to each other for forty years. As if silence wasn’t enough to perpetuate their dispute, one day the husband took a saw and literally cut their frame house in half. They lived the rest of their lives in separate sides of the house.

Granted, this story is rather extreme, but it does illustrate the damaging effects of unforgiveness. In years of counseling, I’ve never known a couple to cut their house in two, but I have seen couples who were emotionally separated from each other, often for decades, because of unresolved offenses.

Forgiving others brings freedom in three areas.

1. The one who has been offended is set free from harmful emotions.

When offended, our natural response is to become angry, and initially, there’s nothing wrong with that; anger is an instinctual and appropriate response to hurt. But unresolved anger can soon escalate to bitterness, hatred, and other toxic emotions.

Notice who is adversely affected by these dangerous emotions—the offended, not the offender. When we refuse to forgive others, it is often we who suffer the most. So we must forgive for our own well-being.

This is why we must forgive even if our offender doesn’t ask for forgiveness. Our offender may never ask forgiveness so we must choose to forgive, otherwise we will suffer twice: once at the offense and then on a continual basis if we harbor anger or hurt.

Marshall Goldsmith said, “Forgiveness means letting go of the hope for a better past.”

2. Relationships can be healed.

Philip Yancey, in his book What’s So Amazing About Grace, wrote, “Forgiveness offers a way out. It does not settle all questions of blame and fairness—often it pointedly evades those questions—but it does allow a relationship to start over, to begin anew.”

In the early years of our marriage, Mary and I argued often, and sometimes the squabble would become so complex we’d even forget what the initial issue was. In the heat of an argument, we would drag in issues from the past, present, and even the future. We returned insult for insult. We’d dig in our heels, choose our weapons carefully, and engage in mental and emotional battle.

But as we’ve matured we handle disputes differently. We still argue, but it seldom gets out of hand. Moments into the conflict we may say something like, “Sweetheart, I love you. Regardless of what happened to cause this dispute, our relationship is more important. Please forgive me for my part in this misunderstanding.” Are we naively ignoring the issues? No, we’re simply maintaining the integrity of our relationship.

Forgiveness is life-giving water poured upon a parched, dry relationship. Without it, relationships can spiral out of control until they are broken or impaired.

3. Forgiveness offers grace to the offender.

When President Lincoln was asked how he was going to treat the rebellious Southerners when they had finally been defeated, the questioner expected that Lincoln would take a dire vengeance, but he answered, “I will treat them as if they had never been away.”

When we forgive others we offer them grace and emotional release from feelings of guilt.

It’s important to know that forgiveness is a choice; it’s a function of our wills, not our emotions.

We must choose to forgive because we will seldom feel like forgiving. I often illustrate this by holding a pen in my hand and then, as an act of my will, I drop the pen on the floor. Forgiveness is like that; we must drop the issue and the offense. Just let it go.

Forgiving an offense doesn’t mean we will forget what happened. It may be hard if not impossible to forget the details and memories surrounding an offense. But forgiveness will provide emotional relief, and in time it will ameliorate painful memories.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.